Visiting the Danes

Thursday, July 15, 2010

July 15, 2010

Dear Carolyn,

Imagine Southeast Missouri in the middle of July with no air conditioning. That's been Copenhagen the past few days. The latitude is Alaskan, and our friends Robyn and Frank have always told us Copenhagen is chilly even during the summer. Air conditioning is unnecessary. But not this summer. The sun is intense and shines from very early morning to almost 11 at night. As we explore the city on buses and Metro trains, we sweat and dream of the bath awaiting at our hotel. We know the Hotel Guldsmeden Betram by the sign on the candy shop next door. It reads Sweet Palace.

Frank and Robyn have been showing us and our friends Don and Claudia around the city, and their friends have been entertaining us. We have dropped in on the ongoing jazz festival playing out on the city streets but have been more captivated by Copenhagen itself. Copenhagen is at once a medieval and modern city with a queen in residence and many more bicyclists than car drivers. Ancient castles border the city center, and modern architectural masterpieces housing opera, theater and books line the harbor.

A year ago, Robyn and Frank's friends Soren and Lotte visited Southeast Missouri for the first time, and Soren called us a "violent paradox." Most Danes are fluent in English, but some things get lost in translation. Some things are made even clearer. The paradox in Copenhagen is no less extreme.

Many of Robyn and Frank's friends believe in social democratic ideals while adhering to traditions that have been Danish for centuries. The depth and warmth of their friendships and their hospitality to visitors are magnificent, but some of their artists create works that seem meant to offend.

A few days ago Soren and Lotte invited us to their house for a traditional Danish meal, the kind Danes normally only eat around the holidays. We sat in their backyard and ate herring on dark bread, "sun eggs" with shots of schnapps, open-faced sandwiches with pork, fish and roast beef, Danish chocolates and rich coffee. The meal lasted most of three hours, partly because there were so many courses but mostly because we talked and laughed so much. Why do we Americans gulp our food as if there were something better for us to be doing?

Soren loves John Deere products. DC brought him a toy tractor.

Their friend Michael is a bricklayer and blues harpist who prepared a similar picnic for us at his apartment building. In Denmark the color of the collar does little to determine how educated and socially aware someone is. Everyone seems to have an opinion and the wont of expressing it. Michael made us open-faced sandwiches with herring and potatoes and liver pate with bacon and mushrooms. In Denmark, everything is open-faced in many ways.

Robyn and Frank live in the same building, which is only a few blocks from our very nice hotel. A few blocks in the other direction is Copenhagen's red light district. Another lost in translation: A Danish tour guide said the harbor was a disreputable place in the old days because of all the drunken sailors and "easygoing women."

Frank and Robyn's friends Rene and Gitte also visited Southeast Missouri last year with their children Clara and Emma. They were on their way to New York City to see the Statue of Liberty and other American icons. Gitte prepared a Babette's Feast with trout pate, veal, bulgur with apricots, fresh tomatoes with pesto and feta, two melons with blueberries, and strawberries with cream, a national favorite. Frank and Rene have played soccer since childhood and watched the World Cup final game with Don, another soccer player.

Clara and Emma are 16 and lovely new high school graduates. Clara is taking a year off to study clothing design. Emma is headed straight to college.

Today DC and I visited an area of Copenhagen called Christiania. It's a former military base that was taken over by squatters in the 1970s. It is the closest thing to an anarchist state I have seen. People do whatever they want there and the government has decided to leave them alone. Artists, eccentrics and otherwise homeless people live there. Some openly sell hashish and marijuana. It has become a tourist attraction, but a sign asks visitors not to take pictures. As you're departing another sign reads: You are now leaving the EU.

Our guidebook says the Vikings got a bad rap. I like their descendants.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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